By Nick McCallum
From 1975 to 1979, over one million people were murdered in Cambodia during a state-sanctioned genocide perpetrated by the Khmer Rouge regime. Anyone thought to be associated with the previous government, along with foreigners, professionals, and academics, were among those targeted, and the effects of this ruthless extermination are still felt to this day. The marginalized remainder of society struggles amidst a flimsy infrastructure, and as the characteristically heavy rains of the region frequently unearth the bones and teeth from the extensive mass graves, the people find themselves living constantly in the shadow of this atrocity. In a country plagued by widespread poverty and corruption, life for many Cambodians is a callous and dismal prospect—a life that Janeen Amting and her sister, Dr. Jayna Amting, were able to observe firsthand.
Canadian nursing student and former roller derby athlete, Janeen is a vivacious and unapologetic seeker of all that this world has to offer, and in May of 2015, had the opportunity to piggyback alongside a group of grad students bound for Cambodia to provide aid and assistance to the impoverished communities surrounding the country’s capital, Phnom Penh. For three weeks, Janeen and Jayna travelled to villages, orphanages, and schools, where they helped organize medical clinics that performed head-to-toe assessments of the local children, identifying issues that most needed attention and addressing them as best they could in the time they had. Everywhere, it seemed, children appeared underdeveloped, with ten-year olds looking no bigger than five, and many adopting copper heads of hair, a telltale sign of malnutrition.
Two of the most significant issues Janeen quickly came to recognize in the places she visited were the level of poverty, and the severe lack of education; girls as old as eighteen had little knowledge of their own basic physiology, with no one ever having explained the process of menstruation to them before. Similarly, boys were perplexed about the nature of wet dreams, condom use, as well as the finer points of consent, but then, even members of “higher” education here in the West apparently have a tough time with that one (read: frat culture). Therefore, Janeen addressed these topics and more in classes on sexual health, basic hygiene, such as brushing one’s teeth and proper hand-washing techniques, as well as nutrition. And while school may be free of charge in Cambodia, students are required to provide their own books and supplies, and therein lies the rub. Because in communities where many of the inhabitants are lucky to bring in $2/day, as Janeen states, “when it comes down to it, are you going to spend your money on books, or rice?”
Although Janeen did not approach her journey with the naïve, highfalutin ideals of wanting to change the world, she did want to make a difference in whatever way she could. So after visiting one village that had been established atop an old dump site, and another whose main function was slaughtering anorexic livestock, Janeen and her sister made their way to Phnom Penh, where they took to the streets and markets, bartering with the locals to acquire as much rice, soap, toothbrushes, and school supplies that they could load into a three-wheeled tuk-tuk. Soon, they returned to those outlying communities to dispense their goods, but despite receiving that altruistic high associated with giving to those in need, Janeen came away feeling as though what she had done "was nothing," merely a drop in the ocean of economic disparity.
Once back in her hometown of London, Ontario, the real effect of Janeen's time spent in Cambodia began to sink in. “We forget about what we have,” she says. “And we complain about everything.” However, one of the biggest shocks reintegrating back into Western society came while she was out shopping for something as trivial as a tank top. As she sifted through the racks of a local department store, she found herself more aware of the product she was looking to purchase, and as she found one suited to her liking she glanced at the manufacturing label, which read: Made in Cambodia. Janeen felt the world disappear around her as she remembered the villages and the people residing in them who struggled daily simply to make ends meet, and walked out of store empty-handed.
Next year, Janeen plans to return to Cambodia to establish a more permanent clinic in one of the many rural villages outside of Phnom Penh. An ambitious project, its goal will be to chart socio-economic trends that will help determine how to best provide the villagers with the requisite tools for them to create and maintain sustainable living conditions in one of the poorest regions of the world.